By I. Schwartz
As was reported in the Yated with special coverage, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate disclosed that its rejection of a letter by Rabbi Avi Weiss that attested to the Jewish status of two Americans who were to wed in Eretz Yisroel was due to Weiss’ controversial, non-Orthodox behavior and affiliations. After engaging the help of politicians, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and others, all of whom clearly should not have been brought into this rabbinic-halachic issue, the matter was diffused in a way that some Orthodox leaders have praised and that others have condemned.
As part of a new agreement with the Rabbanut, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) arranged with the Rabbanut that from now on, letters to the Rabbanut from RCA member rabbis (including Avi Weiss) that state that a person was born Jewish will be accepted, while letters about anything else, such as the Jewish status of a person as a result of conversion, will be sent for review to the Beth Din of America, which has a joint geirus system with the RCA. There is no guarantee of acceptance of such conversions under the agreement; only statements by RCA member rabbis that a person was born Jewish will be granted automatic acceptance.
Some have pointed to the fact that this new agreement prevents graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT, Rabbi Weiss’ controversial Open Orthodox yeshiva) from being able to testify to the Rabbanut about anything, as the RCA does not admit YCT graduates, and YCT graduates will therefore have no rabbinic standing before the Rabbanut. On the other hand, supporters of Avi Weiss, including Assaf Benmelech, Weiss’ lawyer, have painted the Rabbanut’s new acceptance of Weiss’ testimony about (born-) Jewish status as a vindication of all that Avi Weiss represents. Stated Benmelech: “In the decision of the Chief Rabbinate, one can see recognition of the life work of Rabbi Avi Weiss in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and of the halachic legitimacy of Open Orthodox rabbis, who are contending with the challenges of our generation within the limits of the halacha.”
A somewhat middle approach has pointed out that despite Avi Weiss now being able to again tell the Rabbanut that someone was born Jewish – something very simple that does not indicate rabbinic empowerment – his reputation as a reformer who has started a new brand of Judaism and has veered from the path of Torah still remains and cannot be changed unless he himself changes his ways.
Various articles over the past several weeks included mention of two recent cases in which senior rabbinic staff at YCT permitted kohanim to marry converts, in contradiction to halacha. Using rejected halachic arguments that sought to disqualify the kohanim, YCT rabbis were then mesader kiddushin for these “invalidated” kohanim and their convert wives. Great concern exists that Open Orthodox rabbis are in general playing by different rules regarding yuchsin (lineage) issues, as proven by the cases of these kohanim as well as by the notion among some Open Orthodox rabbis that all marriages can be annulled without a get, using logic that has been unanimously disproven by gedolei haposkim and by some Open Orthodox leaders calling for conversion that does not require kabbolas ohl mitzvos.
In fact, Avi Weiss’ shul advertises its own conversion program on its website. There is no mention of kabbolas mitzvos as a requirement for conversion. They provide there “a few guidelines to keep in mind as you embark on this process.” The list includes only synagogue attendance, living in the community, providing one’s children with a Jewish education, and study. The links to the “class in Basic Jewish Concepts” and “key books about Jewish practice, history and culture” are both inoperative. The person listed to contact for this program is (female rabbi/”rabba”) Sara Hurwitz.
Open Orthodoxy has proven itself, many claim, to be totally unreliable when it comes to yuchsin, and we can surely understand why.
Insomuch as the Rabbanut-RCA agreement is very limited and does not grant anyone ne’emanus in areas of gittin, kehunah and the like, some justifiably fear that Open Orthodox rabbis, who have proven themselves suspect in these areas, will push the limits yet again and demand recognition in these most sensitive matters.
As was reported a few months ago, Avi Weiss, in a move that can only be called brazen and anti-halachic,called for the ability for non-halachic conversions to occur in Eretz Yisroel: “For this reason, Israel as a state should give equal opportunities to Conservative and Reform communities. Their rabbis should be able to conduct weddings and conversions. For that matter, civil weddings should also be recognized by the state. I am not advocating that the Orthodox rabbinate accept these conversions or weddings as halachically valid. No rabbi should be called upon to give up his halachic principles. At the same time, however, the State of Israel is the nation-state for the entirety of the Jewish people. As the state accepts non-Orthodox definitions of Jewishness for aliyah and Israeli citizenship, so, too, the state should move to accept non-Orthodox conversions and weddings done in Israel as a matter of Israeli law.”
Taking Weiss’ queue, and following the path that he created, Julie Schonfeld, president of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, has now called on the Rabbanut to recognize Conservative and Reform conversions, quoting Weiss’ plea to allow such conversions in support of her claim. Despite the fact that Weiss’ own conversions would perhaps not be accepted by the Rabbanut (as he was only granted the right to state that someone was born Jewish, and nothing beyond this), and Schonfeld thus errs in declaring, “The good news is in: Rabbi Avi Weiss’ conversions will be accepted in Israel,” the overall momentum created by Weiss has brought about a perception that the Rabbanut will cave in to American Jewish political pressure, and that the Rabbanut can perhaps now also be expected to cave in to Weiss call for the ability to have non-Orthodox conversions in Eretz Yisroel. Weiss’ words and actions have armed the enemies of Torah quite handsomely.
And there is now more: Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, the organization that backed Weiss in his recent battle against the Rabbanut, and on whose board Weiss and other Open Orthodox rabbis sit, has now called for the abolition of the current Chief Rabbinate and is instead calling on the creation of a pluralistic chief rabbinate, which in theory could even have Reform and Conservative members, as specified in a recent article by a spokesman for Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah.
The Rabbanut is in major PR trouble. The perception is that it caved in to the threats of non-Orthodox American politicians, organizations and Avi Weiss, and that it is now vulnerable and ripe to attack and dismantle. For example, a Knesset bill being pushed by Naftali Bennett and Tzipi Livni to eliminate the system of having two chief rabbis and only have one chief rabbi was just successfully approved in committee. This bill would further disempower the incredibly embattled Rabbanut.
One argument made by the representative of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah in his call to revamp the Rabbanut into a pluralistic body is that the Rabbanut should represent the Israeli population, which is not all-Orthodox. This argument is pure folly, as the goal of the Rabbanut is to safeguard and promote Torah, not to reflect the dilution of Torah by the irreligious.
Taking a step back, we need to consider the fact that the latest developments and direction are likely to eventually result in a Rabbanut that the majority of Torah Jewry cannot rely upon for issues of yichus and Jewish identity. This would cause a major split in Klal Yisroel and would be quite disastrous in many ways.
Rather than cave in to those who care not for halacha, the Rabbanut needs to be firm and to reject its critics – critics who are shelo leSheim Shomayim, as they push a pluralistic agenda based on values foreign to Torah, and as they try to tell eminent rabbonim how to conduct themselves and how to craft halachic policy.
To merely identify with a cause leSheim Shomayim is not enough. We need to give chizuk to the cause and show that we matter by asking our rabbonim to contact the Rabbanut and tell it that we, as an important part of the million or so Torah-true Jews worldwide, affirm and support its need to be strong and to make tough, objective decisions, and to stand firm against those who seek to dilute and dissolve it.